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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Pentagon Observance

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Pentagon Auditorium, Washington D.C. , Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thank you very much, Mike, and ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for joining us today to recognize memory and lasting impact of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

The American people have set aside one day each year to recognize Dr. King’s legacy.  But very frankly we feel the impact of that legacy every day, because Dr. King’s dream was the American dream.  As he put it, the dream was about “taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers.”

The simple power of Dr. King’s message resonates across generations, and it shaped my own life in public service.  And as the son of Italian immigrants, I had my own experience confronting discrimination – enough to know that unless we provide equality to all, regardless of race, color, creed, gender, disability, sexual orientation – unless we provide equality to all, none of us can truly be free. 

As many of you know, my own career in public service began at the height of the civil rights movement.

  • I was a young legislative assistant in the United States Senate working for California Senator Tom Kuchel who was very much involved in drafting civil rights legislation. I had the opportunity to work on some of the landmark Civil Rights legislation at that time, and I also—at a signing ceremony at the White House with then President Lyndon Johnson—had the chance to meet Dr. King.
  • In the early 1970’s, I also had the chance and the opportunity to serve as the Director of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights. It was an office that was responsible for enforcing the civil rights law especially with regards to achieving equal education for all children. As you can imagine, this was a tough time. Moving throughout—largely the South—to see if we could ultimately bring black and white children together. And it was tough politically for me, because I was in an administration that was not that dedicated to strong civil rights enforcement and ultimately it cost me my job. But, it taught me a great deal about where that line is between your conscience and what’s right and what sometimes you’re told to do by others that may not meet the requirements of your conscience.
  • Years later, as a member of Congress, I worked on civil rights laws in the Congress, and one of my proudest moments was the opportunity to cast my vote to set aside a day to commemorate Dr. King.
  • As Chief of Staff to President Clinton, I had the opportunity to continue the fight to preserve the progress that had been made by protecting our national commitment to affirmative action.
  • And finally, as Director of CIA and now as Secretary of Defense, I have worked and I think it is important to do everything we can to increase diversity at these two institutions of national security.  I believe both these institutions and the country are stronger when all who are able and willing to defend America are allowed to do so.

The military has always had a very special place in our country’s progress towards equality.  From the first battles of the Revolutionary War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, warriors from all backgrounds have fought and they died for this nation. 

As we know, warriors from different backgrounds did not always fight together.  After World War II, the integration of the Armed Services united and strengthened our military and very frankly laid down a marker for our nation to follow. 

And last year, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell allowed us to get rid of one of the last barriers to allow everyone the opportunity to serve openly in our armed services, and ensured today’s military more closely reflects the society that we are obligated to defend.  We can now more proudly say ‘out of many, we are one.’

So, regardless of background and regardless of perspective, every man and woman at DoD has answered a call to serve.  All of us are striving to make a difference, to make a difference in the world, to protect our nation, to give our children a better life.

I’ve often said that as the son of immigrants, I asked my father, “Why would you come to this country and travel all that distance? No money, no skills, no capabilities, no language ability. Why would you travel all of that distance to come to this country?” Yes, they came from a poor area, but they had the comfort of family. My father said, “The reason was your mother and I believe we could give our children a better life.”

That’s the American dream. That’s what my wife and I want for our three sons. That’s hopefully what they would want for their children, and for their children’s children. That is the American dream. And in many ways, that is why it is so important for us to gather today to honor someone who had a boundless impact on the effort to give our children a better life in this country.

Martin Luther King Day is a chance to ensure that our children and every generation that follows knows Dr. King’s story—of courage, of strength, of dedication—and that all of them can hopefully follow the great example that I think is in many ways the test of life which is whether or not we make a difference.  

As we reflect on Dr. King’s legacy today, his words, his actions, we are honored to be joined by a true legend of the civil rights movement, Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles, who will be our keynote speaker today.

Reverend Kyles was in Memphis with Dr. King on that terrible day and was one of the last people to spend time with him when he was alive.  Out of that tragedy that befell Dr. King, Reverend Kyles drew strength and determination to press on with the fight for equality and for justice, and has spent his life furthering that cause.

Though much has been achieved, Dr. King’s own words remind us that we can never sit still, that we have to continue to press ahead to fight each day to make sure we achieve that American dream.  “It is great that we do have a dream,” he once said. “That we have a nation with a dream…to forever challenge us, to forever give us a sense of urgency.”

So today, let us all rededicate ourselves to achieving that vision, that dream, of a better country for all our children.

May God bless our nation and may God bless Dr. King’s enduring hope for a better future. 

Thank you.

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